My mother likes memoir. For years, I have taken this as a sign of dullness, soft-mindedness, just general momliness. Mothers always like memoir. It gives them other lives to hit you over the head with, to brandish in front of your nose and say: Look, here, this is they way you should be doing it.
I loathe memoir. Mostly because it is less fiction-like than fiction. Or, to put it more baldly, because it is not fiction, but has dug through fiction's closet and is wearing its clothes. How presumptuous, to dress up your life in narrative! A person writing memoir is making a statement that her life deserves a capital-S story. This makes me dislike her right up front as self-aggrandizing.
Plus my mom likes memoir and I am ten years old.
Mature, tough-minded woman that I am, I shoved memoir all the way to the back of my list for My Year of Reading Dangerously and tried to forget about it. Uck: memoir! About a dead baby, no less! Thus it was that I picked up novelist Elizabeth McCracken's slim memoir of stillbirth, An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, a mere four days prior to end of the calendar year.
And sped through it. After that murky, mucky Julia Glass novel, McCracken's book was like a draught of cold water. McCracken can WRITE. This is a relief. Moreover, her motives in doing so are pure, or at least purer than the motives I impute to the archetypal memoirist, whom I imagine blowing hot words into a sorry balloon of a life. For McCracken, words are needles: swiftly and methodically, she lances a period of overwhelming pain.
Less memoir than dissection, An Exact Figment probes period of approximately one year during which McCracken gave birth first to a stillborn boy and then to a live one. The book feels in no small part like an autopsy: Why? McCracken demands of her memory. Why this way? Why that next? Why this particular configuration of days? Her prose is knife-sharp and woundingly lovely.
There's a magnet on my refrigerator, a picture of an aproned, glamorous woman in a 1950's kitchen. Oh my God, she says, my mother was right about everything.
Needless to say, the magnet was a gift from my mother. She thinks it's hilarious. I've never seen the humor. I came very close to giving the magnet away or shoving it drawer, but in the end I kept it on the refrigerator to remind myself that sometimes -not very often, mind you, only occasionally after the pigs have flown a full circuit around the chimney and the moon has turned a brilliant turquoise- my mom is on to something.